Ukrainian painters: Serhii Vasylkivskyi

Serhii Vasylkivskyi (1854–1917), Poltava (date not known), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

This week’s Ukrainian artist was born in Izyum, a city to the south-east of Kharkiv, in the east of Ukraine. His grandfather had been a Chumak, transporting grain and other commodities in oxcarts, and when still a child he and his family moved to Kharkiv, where he lived for most of the rest of his life, in the capital of what had been the semi-autonomous Sloboda Ukraine. He is Serhii Vasylkivskyi (1854-1917), Russified as Serhii Ivanovych Vasylkivsky.

After he had started training to be a veterinary surgeon, he left and worked for a while as a civil servant. In 1876 he moved to Saint Petersburg in Russia, where he studied at the Imperial Academy of Arts, being taught there by Volodymyr Orlovsky (1842-1914), a native of Kyiv and one of the founding fathers of Ukraine landscape painting. Following his graduation in 1885, the academy awarded him funds to travel in Europe and North Africa, including Egypt.

When he was in Paris, he was influenced by the Barbizon school and the landscapes of Camille Corot; given that he must have been there in about 1886-88, I also suspect that he was influenced by Impressionism. On his return, Vasylkivskyi settled in Kharkiv, where he painted prolifically and was a key member of artistic circles until his death in 1917, at the age of 62.

Unfortunately, few of the available images of his paintings are dated. Those that remain are a small fraction of the more than three thousand works he is believed to have made through his career. Many have been destroyed during the wars that have ravaged Kharkiv since his death, and continue to this day.

Serhii Vasylkivskyi (1854–1917), Ukrainian Landscape (date not known), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

This Ukrainian Landscape may date from soon after his return from Paris, as it appears to have a Barbizon influence.

Serhii Vasylkivskyi (1854–1917), Spring Day in Ukraine (1883), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

This oil sketch of a Spring Day in Ukraine has been dated to 1883. The two women in the foreground are engaged in the chore of washing clothes in the stream flowing through this small hamlet. The first of the leaves are starting to appear on the trees.

Serhii Vasylkivskyi (1854–1917), Cossack House (date not known), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Cossack House is a more substantial thatched farmhouse, with barns behind. A small group is gathered around a cart, talking.

Serhii Vasylkivskyi (1854–1917), Neighbourhood (date not known), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Neighbourhood shows an oxcart being used at another farm, this time on the edge of a village. On the skyline to the left is the church.

Serhii Vasylkivskyi (1854–1917), Village Street (date not known), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Village Street shows a broad road running through a village, with small groups talking together.

Serhii Vasylkivskyi (1854–1917), Poltava (date not known), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Poltava shows the first recognisable location (I think). The buildings on the skyline appear to be the Monastery of the Exaltation of the Cross in the city of Poltava. This was built at the direction of the Metropolitan of Kyiv, Sylvester Kossov, in 1650, to commemorate the victory of the Cossack Host over the Polish army at the Poltavka River.

Serhii Vasylkivskyi (1854–1917), Sea Tide (1898), media and dimensions not known, Hermitage Museum Государственный Эрмитаж, Saint Petersburg, Russia. Wikimedia Commons.

Sea Tide is dated to 1898, and shows fishing boats, probably on the Black Sea coast, in fine weather. I suspect its title is a mistranslation, as the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov are effectively enclosed areas of water, so have negligible tides. The waves seen here are wind-generated, perhaps reflecting gusty conditions further offshore.

Serhii Vasylkivskyi (1854–1917), Sunset over the Lake (date not known), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

I suspect that Vasylkivskyi painted Sunset over the Lake late in his career. It’s overtly Impressionist, with rich colours and gestural marks for its rushes.

Vasylkivskyi also painted many portraits of Ukrainian country people. Here is a selection of three.

Serhii Vasylkivskyi (1854–1917), Ukrainian Peasant (date not known), oil on wood, 36.5 x 24 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Inscribed on the reverse of Ukrainian Peasant is a reference to Solopij Warenik, a character in Nikolai Gogol’s short story The Sorochinsk Fair. Although regarded as being Russian, Gogol was born in Velyki Sorochyntsi, a village not far from Poltava, and the site of that fair. Gogol, who was bilingual in Ukrainian and Russian, didn’t leave Ukraine until he was nineteen, when he went to Saint Petersburg.

Serhii Vasylkivskyi (1854–1917), Zaporozhian Cossack (date not known), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Zaporozhian Cossack shows an older man, alone with his horse, leaning on his gun and staring into the distance.

Serhii Vasylkivskyi (1854–1917), Cossack Senior from the Zaporozhian Host (date not known), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Cossack Senior from the Zaporozhian Host shows another older man in tattered clothing, a pipe held in his left hand.


Andrey Kurkov and others (2022) Treasures of Ukraine, A Nation’s Cultural Heritage, Thames & Hudson. ISBN 978 0 500 02603 8.